By John Richardson, staff writer
About 1.5 million acres of Maine — an area the size of Delaware — is protected from sprawl by conservation easements that are supposed to prevent development forever.
But will they?
“Forever is a long time,” said Rep. John Piotti, D-Unity.
Piotti is part of a group of state officials and conservationists who say they want to make sure the easements benefit the public indefinitely. Piotti plans to submit legislation this winter to tighten regulation of private conservation easements in Maine, where more land is protected by such contracts than in any other state.
Chief among the group’s concerns is the longevity of the easements and what will happen if the private contracts are neglected over time and ignored by future landowners. Although it has yet to be finalized, the bill will likely include the first statewide listing of private easements, more public oversight and new legal guidelines for enforcing easements after the original parties are no longer around to stop development.
“Conservation easements need to be enforced as organizations who hold them go out of business,” Piotti said. “It’s that kind of enforcement that is critical to make the whole thing work.”>/p>
Conservation easements are among the newest and hottest tools in land conservation. They have been around for about 25 years in Maine, but their use around the country has exploded over the past five to 10 years. Maine easements range from one that covers 763,000 acres of northern timberlands to numerous agreements to protect walking trails or vacant lots in developed neighborhoods.
Although each one is unique, a typical easement is a contract between a landowner and a land trust.
The easement allows the landowner to keep the land, and sometimes even log it or farm it, while prohibiting or limiting future development. Those development rights are donated or sold to the easement holder and the contract is recorded on the property’s deed. But unless the state becomes the easement holder, it is up to the land trust to make sure the agreement is never violated.
The deals are usually private, but there is a public investment in most cases. Municipal, state or federal money is often used to help buy easements, and a landowner who donates one typically gets a tax deduction for giving up the development rights. In return, the easements are required to provide a public benefit.
“There’s a public dimension to every conservation easement,” said Assistant Attorney General Jeff Pidot.
Pidot has studied conservation easements in depth. He authored a report in 2005 that called for reforms and led to a nearly completed review of Maine’s law. “The whole purpose of all of this is to provide a legal means for ensuring that conservation easements deliver what people think they do,” he said.
Maine has pioneered the use of easements, especially those that protect working forests. The 763,000-acre conservation easement signed in 2001 on Pingree family timberlands across northern and western Maine remains the single largest private conservation deal in the nation.
Maine has 85 land trusts, and about 7.5 percent of the state is protected by easements, according to The Land Trust Alliance, a national organization that tracks conservation.
“Maine has, per capita, more land trusts than any other state by far. It has more land under conservation easement in absolute terms than any other state,” Pidot said. “So its interests are large in this area.”>/p>
The precise number of easements in Maine is unknown because there is no central list or registry to help monitor the trend or identify violations. “It is believed there are well over 1,000, but no one has sure knowledge,” Pidot said.
Piotti said the bill is likely to include some form of registry, which would immediately bring more accountability.
Maine officials are not aware of any increase in easement violations, Piotti said. They also are not aware of major abuses, such as easements that are written more for questionable tax breaks than for actual conservation. But the trend needs additional regulation to make sure the easements remain a trustworthy conservation tool, Piotti said.
The Nature Conservancy and the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, land trusts that hold numerous large easements in the state, are part of the group that has been working on reforms for the past year.
Bruce Kidman of the Nature Conservancy’s Brunswick office said easements have helped preserve important pieces of Maine’s North Woods at a time when land uses and ownership are changing fast. “The easement is an important tool,” Kidman said.
And, he said, updating the rules will help ensure that easements continue to provide the public benefits they promise.